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Cy Twombly) 1955

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The Wisdom of Art

Sagesse de l' Art


Roland Barthes
Q!!els que soient les avatars de la peinture, quels que soient
Ie support et Ie cadre, c'est roujours la rneme question:
qu'crt-ce qui se pOSIe, La? Toile, papier au mur, il s'agit d'une

scene au advient quelque chose (et si, dans certaines formes


d'art, I'arriste veut deliberement qu'il ne se passe rien, c'est
encore I" une aventure). Aussi faut-il prendre Ie tableau
(gardons ce nom commode, rneme s'il est ancien) pour une
sorte de theatre l'italienne: Ie rideau s'ouvre, nous regardons,
nous attendons, nous recevons, nous comprenons; et la scene
passee, Ie tableau disparu, nous nous souvenons: nous ne
sommes plus les memes qu'avant: comme dans Ie theatre
antique, nous avons
inities. Je voudrais interroger TWOInbly sous Ie rapport de l'Evenement.
Ce qui se passe sur la scene proposee par Twombly (toile
au papier), c'est quelque chose qui participe de plusieurs

ete

types d'evenement, que les Grecs distinguaient

tres bien dans

leur vocabulaire: il se passe un fait (pragma), lin hasard (tychi),


une issue (telOf), une surprise (apodesto,,) et une action (drama).

I
Avant toutes choses, il se passe ... du crayon, de l'huile, du
papier, de Ia toile. L'instrument de la peinture n'est pas un
instrument. C'est un fait. Twombly impose le ruateriau, non
com me ce qui va servir quelque chose, mais comrne une

matiere absolue, manifestee dans sa gloire (Ie vocabulaire


theologique dit que la gloire de Dieu, c'est la manifestation
de son Etre). Le materiau est materia prima, comme chez les
Alchimistes, La materia prima est ce qui existe anterieurernent
la division du sens: paradoxe enorrne, car, dans I'ordre
humain, rien ne vient Phomme qui ne sait lmmediatement
accompagne d'un sens, Ie sens que d'autres hommes lui ont
donne, et ainsi de suite, en remontant,
l'infini. Le pouvoir
demiurgique du peintre est qu'il fait exister Ie materiau
comme matiere; meme si du sens surgit de la toile, Ie crayon
et la couleur restent des "choses", des substances entetees,
dont rien (aucun sens posterieur) ne peut defaire I'obstination

a ccetre-Ia".

L'art de Twombly consiste it faire voir les chases: non


celles qu'il represente (c'est un autre probleme), rnais celles
qu'il manipule: ce peu de crayon, ce papier quadrille, cette
parcelle de rose, cette tache brune. Cet art possede son secret,
qui est en general, non d'etaler la substance (charbon, encre,

Whatever the metamorphoses of painting, whatever the


support and the frame, we are always faced with the same
question: mbat is happening, there? Whether we deal with
canvas, paper or wall, we deal with a stage where something
is happening (and if, in some forms of art, the artist deliberately intends that nothing should happen, even this is an
event, an adventure), So that we must take a painting (let
us keep this convenient name, even if it is an old one) as a
kind of traditional stage: the curtain rises, we look, we wait,
we receive, we understand; and once the scene is finished and
the painting removed, we remember: we are no longer what
we were: as in ancient drama, we have been initiated. What
I should like to do is consider Twombly in his relation to
what constitutes an Event.
What happens on the stage Twombly offers us (whether
it is canvas or paper) is something which partakes of several
kinds of event, which the Greeks knew very well how to distinguish in their vocabulary: what happens is a ~1ct (pragma),
a coincidence (tycbi), an outcome (telOf), a surprise (apoderton)
and an action (drama)'
I
Before everything else, there happen ... some pencil strokes,
oils, paper, canvas. The instrument of painting is not an instrument. It is a fact. Twombly imposes his materials on us
not as something which is going to serve some purpose, but
as absolute matter, manifested in its glory (theological vocabulary tells us that the glory of God is the manifestation of
his Being). The materials are the materia prima, as for the
Alchemists. The materia prima is what exists prior to the division operated by Ineaning: an enormous paradox since nothing,
in the human order, comes to man unless it is immediately
accompanied by a meaning, the meaning which other men
have given it, and so 00, in an infinite regress. The demiurgic
power of the painter is in this, that he makes the materials
exist as matter; even if some meaning comes out of the painting, pencil and color remain as '(things," as stubborn substances whose obstinacy in "being there" nothing (no subsequent meaning) can destroy.
Twombly's art consists in making us see tbings: not those
which he represents (this is another problem), but those
which he manipulates: a few pencil strokes, this squared
paper, this touch of pink, this brown smudge. This is an art
with a secret, which is in general not that of spreading the

huile), mais de [a laissertrainer, On pourrait penser que, pour


dire Ie crayon, il faut I'appuyer, en renforcer l'apparence,
Ie
rendre intense, nair, epais. Twombly pense Ie conrraire: c'est
en retenan t la pression de la rna tiere, en la laissan t se poser
camille nonchalamrnenr de t:'1~on que son grain se disperse un
peu, que la matiere va montrer son essence, nous donner la
certitude de son nom: c'est du crayon. 5i l'on voulait philosopher un peu, on dirait que l'etre des choses est, non dans
leur Jourdcur, mais dans leur Iegeretc; cc qui serait peur-errc
retrouver line proposition de Nietzsche: "Ce qui est bon est
leger": rien, en efiet, de 1110ins wagnerien que Twombly.
Il s'agir done de (lire apparairre, toujours, en toutes c11'constances (en n'importe quelle ceuvre), la matiere comme
un (lit (prag,ma). Pour cela, Twombly a, sinon des precedes
(et quand bien meme en aurait-il, en art, Ie precede est noble),
du mains des habitudes. Ne nous demandons pas si ces
habitudes, d'autres peintrcs les ant cues: c'est, de toutes
manieres, leur combinaison, leur repartition, leur dosage qui
font Part original de Twombly. Les mots, eux aussi, appartiennent
tout Ie monde, rnais la phrase, die, appartient
I'ccrivain; Ies "phrases" de Twombly sont inimitables.
Voici donc
travers quels gestes Twombly enonce (pourrait-on dire: cpelle?) la matiere de la trace: I) la griff"re;
Twombly griffe la toile d'un gribouillis de lignes (Free pVhee!er, p. 25; CritidsJIl, p. 28; Olympia, p. 29); Ie gcste est celui
d'ull va-et-vient de la main, parfois intense, comme si l'artiste
"tripotait" Ie trace, Ia fa)=onde quelqu'un qui s'ennuierait
au cours d'une reunion syndicale et noircirait de traits apparel11ment insignifiants un coin du papier gu'il a devant
lui; 2) la tache (Commodu, II, p. 48); il ne s'agit pas de tachisme;
T\vombly dirige la tache, ilIa tra1ne, comme s'il intervenait
avec les doigts; Ie corps est donc la, contigu, proche de la
toilc, nOn par projection, mais, si 1'on peut dire, par attouchement, cependant toujours leger; il ne s'agit pas d'Ull ecrasel11ellt(voir, par exemple, Bay of Napier) p. 40); aussi vaudraitill11ieux parler, peut-etre, de macula, plut6t que de "tache";
'
,.
car Ia ~nacuIa, ce eSt pas n Importe quelle tache; c'est (l'etyl1lologle nous Ie dlt) la tache sur ]a peau, mais aussi la maille
d'un fllet, en ce qu'elle rappelerai t la tacheture de certains
animaux; les maculae de Twombly sont en effet de l'ordre du
reseau; 3) la ralirrure: j'appel1e ainsi les trainees, de couleur ou
de crayon, souvent meme de matiere indefinissable, dont

I:

10

substance (charcoal, ink, oils) but of lettillg it trail bebilld.One


might think that in order to express the character of pencil,
one has to press it against the paper, to reinforce its appearance, to make it thick, intensely black. Twombly thinks the
opposite: it is in holding in check the pressure of matter, in
letting it alight almost nonchalantly on the paper so that its
grain is a little dispersed, that matter will show its essence
and make us certain of its correct name: this is pencil. If we
wanted to philosophize a little, we would say that the essence
of things is not in their weight but in their lightness; and we
would thereby perhaps confirm one of Nietzsche's statements:
"What is good is light": and indeed, nothing is less Wagnerian
than Twombly.
What is in question, therefore, is a means of making in all
circumstances
(in any kind of work), matter appear as a fact
(pragrna). In order to do this, Twombly has, not devices (and
even if he had, in art devices have their nobility), but at
least habi ts. Let us not ask whether other painters have had
these habi ts too: in Jny case, it is their combination, their
arrangenlent, their distribution, which constitute the original
art of Twombly.
Words too belong to everybody; but sen.
T worn bl'"y s sentences " are
tenees b e Iong to writers:
inimitable.
Here are, then, the gestures through which Twombly
enunciates (should we say: spells?) the matter in the trace:
I) Scratching. Twombly scratches the canvas by scrawling
lines on it (Free pI/heeler, p. 25; Criticism, p. 28; Olympia, p. 29).
This is a gesture of moving to and ho, sometimes obsessively,
as if the artist kept tampering with the lines he has drawn,
like someone who is bored during a trade-union meeting and
blackens with apparently meaningless strokes a corner of the
sheet of paper in front of him. 2) Smudging (ComtlllJdllsII, p. 48)'
This has nothing to do with tachi,me; Twombly guides his
smudges, drags them along as if he used his flngers; his body
is therefore right there, contiguous with the canvas, not
through a projection but, so to speak, through a touch which
always remains light: the color is never crushed (see for
instance Bay of Naples, p. 40). 50 perhaps we should speak of
maClf!ae rather than "smudges"; for a macula is not any stain;
it is (as etymology
tells us) a stain on the skin, but also the
mesh of a net, inasmllch as it reminds one of the spots of some
animals; Twombly's
maculae make us think of a net. J) Smearing.
This is the name I give to the marks in paint or pencil, often
even .in a material which cannot be specified, with which

Twombly semble recouvrir d'autres traits, comme 5'il voulait


les effacer, sans Ie vouloir vraiment, puisque ees traits restenr
un peu visibles sous la caliche qui les enveloppe, c'est une
dialectique subtile: l'arriste feint d'avoir "rate' guelgue
morceau de sa toile er de vouloir l'effacer; mais ce gommage,
ille rate son tour; et ees deux ratages superposes produisent
une sorte de palimpseste: donnent it la toile la profondeur
d'un ciel
Ies nuages legers passent les uns devant les
autres sans s'annuler (ViC1lJ, p. 32; Scbool of Athem, p. 44)
On pourra remarquer que ees gestes, qui out pour but

au

d'installer 13 matiere COIllI11C un fait, ont tous un rapport avec


Ia salissure, Paradoxe: le (lit, dans sa purere, se definit mieux
de n'etre pas propre. Prenez un objet usuel: ce n'est pas son
etat neuf, vierge, qui rend le mieux compte de son essence;
c'est plutot son erat dejete, un peu use, un peu sali, un peu
abandonne: Ie dechet, voila
se lit la verite des choses. C'est
"
,
I
''d
ans
a
tramee
qu
est
a
vente
u rouge; c 'dest ans Ia tenue
d
I
relachee d'un trait qu'esr la verite du crayon. Les Idees (au
sens platonicien) ne sont pas des Figures metalliques et
brillantes, corse tees cornme des concepts, rnais plurot des
macularures un peu rremblees, tenues sur fond vague.
Voila pour Ie fait pictural (pia dl porre). Mais il y a d'autres
evcnements d:ll1s I'CEuncde Twombly: des evenemcnts
cClits,des Noms. Eux aussi sont des faits: ils sc tiennent
debout sur la scene, sans deCOf,sans accessoires: Virgil (p.
99), Orpheus (p. IOZ). Mais leur gloire nominaliste (rien que le
Nom) est e1le aussi impure: Ie graphisme est un peu enfantin,
irregulier, gauche; rien ;] voir mrec la typographie de Part
conceptuel; la main qui trace donne
ces nomS toutes les
mabdresses de guelgu'un qui essaye d'ecrire; et dCs lars,
peut-etre, ici encore, la verite du Nom apparait micux: est-ce
gue I'ecolier n'apprend pas I'essence de Ia table en en copiant
Ie nom de sa main Iaborieuse? En ecrivant Virgil sur sa toile,
eest camIlle si Twombly condensait dans sa main i'enormite
memc du monde virgilicn, toutes les references dont ce n01TI
cst Ie depOt. C'est pourguoi, dans les titres de Twombly, il
ne f.1utchercher aucune induction d'analogie. Si fa toile
s'appelle The ltaliallr (p. 36), ne cherchez nulle parr les Italiens,
saur, precisement, dans leur nom. Twombly
sait gue Ie Nom
a une puissance absolue (et suffisante) d'evocation: ecrire LeI
ItalicllI, c'est voir taus les Italiens. Les Noms sont comme ces
jarres dont parlenr les Mille et Ulle Nuits dans je ne sais plus
que! conte: des genies y soot enfermes; ouvrez au brisez la
jarre, Ie genie sort, s'clcve, se deforme camme une fumce et

au

Twombly seems to cover other strokes, as if he wanted to


erase the latter without really wanting it, since these strokes
remain faintly visible under the layer which covers them.
This is a subtle dialectic: the artist pretends to have "bungled"
a part of his canvas and to wish to erase it. But he again bungles the rubbing out and these two failures superimposed on
each other produce a kind of palimpsest: they give the canvas
the depth of a sky in which light clouds pass in front of each
other without blotting each other out (VieIV, P: ]2; Scbaalof

Atbem, p. 44).
As we can see, these gestures, which aim to establish matter
as fact, are all associated with making something dirty. Here
is a paradox: a fact is more purely defined if it is not clean.
Take a common object: it is not its new and virgin state
which best accounts for its essence; it is rather a state in
which it is deformed, a little worn, a little dirtied, a little forlorn: the truth of things is best read in refuse. It is in a smear
that we find the truth of redness; it is in a wobbly line that
we find the truth of pencil. Ideas (in the Platonic sense of the
word) are not metallic and shiny Figures, in conceptual corsets, but rather faint shaky stains, on a vague background.
So much for the pictorial element (via di pone). But there
are other events in Twombly's work: written events, Names.
They too are facts: they stand on the stage, without sets or
props: Virgil (nothing but the Name; p. 99), Olpbells (p. IOZ)'
But this nominalist glory too is impure: the strokes are a
little childish, irregular, clumsy. This is quite different from
the typography in conceptual art: the hand which has drawn
them confers on all these names the lack of skill of someone
who is trying to write; and [rom this, once again, the truth
of the Name appears all the better. Doesn't the schoolboy
learn the essence of a table by copying its name laboriously?
By writing Virgil on his canvas, it is as if Twombly was condensing in his hand the very immensity of Virgil's world, all
the references of which his name is the receptacle. This is
why Twombly's titles do not lead to analogy. If a canvas is
called The Italians (p. 36), do not seek the Italians anywhere,
except, precisely, in their name. Twombly knows that the
Name has an absolute (and sufficient) power of evocation: to
write The Italians is to see all the Italians. Names are like
those jars we read about in I don't know which tale of the
Arabian NightI: genii are caught in them. If you open or break
the jar, the genie comes out, rises, expands like smoke and
fills up the air: break the title, and the whole canvas escapes.

II

emplit l'air en tier: brisez Ie titre, to ute 10 toile s'en echappe.


Un fonctionuement aussi pur s'observe bien dans 1a dedicace.
II yen a quelques lines chez Twombly:
To Valery (p. 97),
To Tat/in (p. 97). Une fois de plus, ici, rien de plus que l'acte
graphique de dedier. Car "dedier" est I'un de ces verbes que
les linguistes,
la suite de Austin, ont appeles des "performatifs", parce que leur sens se confond avec ]'acte merne de les
enoncer: "je dedie" n'a d'autre sens que Ie geste effectif par
Jequel je tends ce que j'ai fai t (mon ceuvre)
quelqu'un
que
j'airne ou admire. C'est bien ce que fait Twombly: ne supporrant que l'inscription de la dedicace, la toile en quelque

sorte s'absente: n'est donne que l'acte de donner-et

ce peu

d'ecriture pour le dire. Ce sont des toiles-limites, non en ce


qu'elles ne component aucune peinture (d'autres peintres ant
experirnente cette limite)mais parce que l'idee merne d'o-uvre
est supprimee-s-mais non 1a relation du peintre qui il aime,

II
T)Jc'Je,
I' en grec, c 'I"
,
est evenernenr,
en ce gu "1'
1 survien

par
hasard. Les toiles de Twombly sernblenr toujours comporter
une certaine force de hasard, une Bonne Chance. Peu irnporre
que l'ceuvre soit, en fait, le resultat d'un calculminutieux.
Ce qui compte, c'est !'effet de hasard, ou, pour Ie dire plus
subtilernenr (car l'arr de Twombly
n'est pas aleatoire): d'inrpirotioFl, cette force creative qui est comrne Ie bonheur du
hasard. Deux mouvements et un etat rendent compte de cet
effet.
t

Les mouvements sont: d'abord l'impression de "jete": le


rnateriau semble jete travers la toile, et Jeter est un acte en
lequel s'inscrivent
la fois une decision initiaJe et une indeci~ion terminale: en jetant, je sais ce que je [ais, mais je ne
sals pas ce que je produis. Le "jete" de Twombly est elegant,
souple, "long", comme on dit aces jeux
il s'agit de lancer
une boule; ensuite-ceci
etant comme la consequence de cela
-une apparence de dispersion; dans une toile (ou un papier
de Twombly),
les eteJnents sont separes les uns des autres
par de, l'espace, beaucoup d'espace; en cela ils ont quelque
affil1lte avec la pemture onentale, dol1t Twombly est d'ailleurs
pr~che par Ie reCOurs un melange frequent d'ecriture et de
pemture. Mcme quand les accidents-les
evenements-sont
marques fortement (Bay of Napier, p. 40), les toiles de Twomb!y restent des espaces absalument aeres; et leur aeration
~ est pas se~lement une valeur plastique; c'est camme une
energle Subtile qui pennet de mieux respirer: la toile produit

au

12

The purity of this mechanism can also be observed in dedications. There are a few in Twombly:
To Valery (p. 97), To
Tat/in (p. 97). Once more, there is nothing more here than
the graphic act of dedicating. "To dedicate" is Oneof those
verbs which linguists, following Austin, have called "performatives" because their meaning merges with the very act
of enouncing
them: "I dedicate" has no other meaning than
the actual gesture by which I present what I have done (my
work) to someone I love or admire. This is exactly what
Twombly
does: since it bears only the inscription of the dedication, the canvas so to speak disappears, and only the act
of giving remains-and
this modicum of writing necessary to
express it. These canvases are at the boundaries of painting,
not because they include no painting at all (other painters
have explored this limit) but because the very idea of a work
is destroyed-but
not the relation of the painter to someone
he loves.

II

Tyche, in Greek, is an event inasmuch as it occurs by chance.


Twombly's
canvases always seem to include a certain force
coming hom chance. Never mind if, in fact, the work is the
result of very precise calculation for what counts is the chance
effect, or, to put it with more subtlety (for Twombly's art is
not aleatory):
the il/spiratiol/ effect, since inspiration is this
creative force which is like the felicity of chance. Two movements and a certain state account for this effect.
The movements are: first, the impression of "jete," of
something having been thrown: the materials seem to have
been thrown across the canvas, and to throw is an act in which
are enshrined at the same time an initial decision and a final
indetermination:
when I throw something, I know what I am
doing, but I don't know what I am producing. Twombly's
way of throwing is elegant, supple, "long," as we say in those
games where a ball has to be thrown. Second (and this aspect
is like a consequence of the first), an appearance of dispersion.
On a canvas (or paper) by Twombly,
the elements are separated from each other by space, a lot of space. In this, they
have some affinity with Oriental painting, to which Twombly
is otherwise related by his frequent recourse to a mixture of
writing and painting. Even when the accidents-the
eventsare strongly indicated (Bay of NapIer, p. 40), Twombly's
paintings preserve an absolute spaciousness. And this spaciousness is not only a plastic value; it is like a subtle energy

en moi ce que le philosophe Bachelard appelait une imagination "ascentionnclle":


je flotte dans Ie ciel, je respire dans
I'air (St/Jool of Fontainebleau, p. ]4). L'etat qui est lie aces
deux mouvements (Ie "jete" et la dispersion), et qui est celui
de toutes les toiles de Twombly, est Ie Rare. "Rarus" veut
dire en latin: qui presenre des intervalles OLl des interstices,
clairserne, poreux, epars, et c'est bien l'espace de Twombly
(voir notamment
U1Ititled, 1959, P: 31).
Comment ces deux idees, celie d'espace vide et celie de
hasard (tyche') peuvent-elles avoir rapport entre elles? Valery
(a qui un dessin de Twombly est dedi e) peut Ie faire comprendre. Dans un cours du College de France (5 mai 1944),
Valery examine les deux cas Oll peut se trouver celui qui fait
une rruvre; dans Ie premier cas, l'o-uvre repond
un plan
determine; dans l'autre, l'artiste meuble un rectangle imaginaire. Twombly meuble son rectangle selon Ie principe du
Rare) c'est-a-dire de l'espacement. Cette notion est capitale
dans l'esthetique japonaise, qui ne connair pas les categories
kantiennes de l'espace et du temps, mais celle, plus subtile,
d'intervalle (en japonais: Ma). Le Ma japonais, c'est au fond
le Rill'Ur latin, et c'est I'art de Twombly. Le Rectangle Rare
renvoie de la sorte deux civilisat.ions: d'un
au "vide"
des compositions orientales, simpiement accentue ici et la
d'unc calligraphie; et de l'autre 3 un espace mediterraneen,
qui est celui de Twombly; curieusernent, en effet, Valery
(encore lui) a bien rendu compte de cet espace rare, non
propos du ciel au de la mer (a quai on penserait d'abord),
rnais propos des vieilles maisons meridiouales: "Ces grandes
chambres du Midi, tres bonnes pour unc medirancn-e-lcs
meubles grands et perdus. Le grand vide cnferme-s-oi; Ie
temps ne compte pas. L'esprit veut peupler tout cela." Au
fond, les toiles de Twombly sont de grandes chambres
mediterraneennes, chaudes et lumineuses, aux elements
perdus (rori) que I'esprit veut peupler.

cote

which allows one to breathe better. The canvas produces in


me what the philosopher Bachelard called an "ascensional"
imagination: I float in the sky, I breathe in the air (School of
Fontatnebleau, p. 34). The state which is linked to these two
movements (the "jete" and the dispersion), and which is
found in all of Twombly's
paintings, is the Rare. "Rarus" in
Latin means: that which has gaps or interstices, sparse, porous, scattered, and this is indeed what space is like in
Twombly (see especially Untitled, 1959, p. 31)'
How can these two ideas, that of empty space and that of
chance (tycbf) be related? Valery (to whom one of Twombly's
drawings is dedicated) can help us to understand it. In a lecture at the College de France (5 May I944), Valery examines
the two cases in which an artist can find himself: either his
work follows a predetermined
plan, or he fills in an imaginary
rectangle. Twombly fills his rectangle according to the principle of the Rare, that is, of spacing out. This notion is crucial
in Japanese aesthetics, which does not know the Kantian
categories of space and time, but only the more subtle one of
interval (in Japanese: Ma). The Japanese Ma, basically, is the
Latin Rarus, and it is Twombly's art. The Rare Rectangle
thus refers us to two civilizations: on the one hand, to the
"void" of Eastern art, which is simply punctuated,
here and
there, with some calligraphy; and on the other, to a Mediterranean space which is that of Twombly. Curiously, Valery
(again) has well expressed this rare space, not by relating it
to the sky or the sea (of which one would have thought at
first) but to the old southern houses: "These vast rooms of
the Midi, very good for meditation, with their tall furniture
looking lost. A great void locked in-where
time doesn't
count. The mind wants to populate all this." Basically,
Twombly's paintings are big Mediterranean
rooms, hot and
luminous, with their elements looking lost (rari) and which
the mind wants to populate.

III

III
Mars and the Artist (p. 64) est une composition apparemment
symbolique: en haut, Mars, c'est-a-dire une bataiUe de lignes
et de rouges, en bas, l'Artiste, c'est-a.-dire une fleur et son
nom. La toile fonctionne COI1lI11C un pictogramme,
se
combinent les elements figuratifs et les elements graphiques.
Ce systeme est treS clair, et, bien qu'il soit tout [Lit exceptionne! dans l'ceuvre de Twombly, sa clarte meme no us renvoie
au probleme conjoint de la figuration et de Ia signification.

au

Mars alld tbe Artist (p. 64) is an apparently symbolical composition: at the top, Mars, that is to say a battle of lines and
reds, at the bottom, the Artist, that is, a flower and his name.
The painting functions like a pictograph, where figurative
and graphic elements are combined. This system is very
clear, and although it is quite exceptional in Twombly's work,
its very clarity refers us to the joint problems of figuration

and signification.
13

Bien que l'abstraction

(mal nomrnee, on le sait) soit en


dans l'hisroirc de la peinturc
(depuis, dir-on, le dernier Cezanne), chague artiste nouveau
n'en finit pas de debattre avec elle: en art, les problernes de
langage ne sont jamais vraiment regles: Ie bngage fait toujours retour sur lui-meme, Il n'est done jamais naif (rualgre
les intimidations
de [a culture, et surtout de [a culture
specialisee) de se demander devant une toile ce qu'elle figure.
Le sens poi sse J l'hornme: quand bien Illemc veur-il creer du
non-sens ou du hors-sens, il fini t par produire le sens meme
du non-sens ou du hors-scns. n est d'autant plus lc~g.itimc de
revenir sans cesse sur Ja question du sens, que c'est precisement cette question qui fait obstacle
l'universaiite
de la
peinture. Si rant d'hommes (a cause des differences de culture)
ant l'impression de "nc rien comprendre"
dcvant une toile,
c'est qu'ils veulent du sens, et que la toile (pensent-ils)
ne
leur en donne pas.

mouvement depuis longtemps

Twombly aborde franchement Ie problerne, ne serait-ce


qu'en ceci: que la plupart de ses toiles sont intitulees. Du
fait merne gu'cHes ant un titre, elles tendent aux hommes,
qui en sont assoiffes, I'appat d'une signification. Car dans Ja
peinture c1assique, la legende d'Ull tableau (cette tnince Iigne
de mots qui court au bas de l'cruvre et sur quai Ies visiteurs
d'un musee se precipitent d'abord) disait claircment ce guc
represen tait Ie tableau: I'analogie de Ia peinture etai t doublee
par I'analogie du titre: Ia signification passait pour exhaustive,
Ia figuration etait epuisee. Or il n'est pas possible qu'en
voyant une toile intitulee de Twombly on n'ait pas ce
debut de reflexe: on cherche l'analogie. The Italians (p. 36)?
Sahara? Ou sont les Italiens? Ou est Ie Sahara? Cherchons.
Evidemmcl1t, on ne trouve rien. Ou du moins-et
c'est
que commence I'an de Twombly-ce
qu'on trouve-a
savoir
la toile eIle-meme, l'Evenement, dans sa splendeur et son
enigme--est
ambigu: rien ne "repn~sente" Ies Italiens, Ie
Sahara, a~cune figure analogique de ces referents, et pourtant,
011 Ie devJne
vaguemcnt, rien non plus, dans ces toiles, n'est
cOIl:radictoire avec une certaine idee naturelle du Sahara, des
Itahens. Autrement rut, Ie spectateur a Ie pressentiment
d'une
autre logigue (son. regard commence
travailler): bien gue
tn~s obscure, la tode a une issue; ce qui s'y passe est COI1forme un telos, une certaine fina]jte.

la

Cette issue n'est pas trouvee tout de suite. Dans un


pr~mier temps, Ie titre, en quelque sorte, bloque I'acces
la
rode, car, par sa precision, son intelligibilite, Son classicismc

Although
abstract painting (which bears an inaccurate
name, as we know) has been in the making for a long time
(since the later Cezanne, according to some people), each new
artist endlessly debates the question again: in art, linguistic
problems are never really settled, and language always turns
back to reflect on itself. It is therefore never naive (in spite of
the intimidation
of culture, and above all of specialist culture)
to ask oneself before a painting mbat it reprerellis.Meaning
sticks to man: even when he wants to create something
against meaning or outside it, he ends up producing the very
meaning of nonsense or non-meaning.
It is all the more legitimare to tackle ag.:1in and agajn the question of meaning, that
it is precisely this question which prevents the universality
of pain ting. If so many people (because of cultural differences)
have the impression or "not understand.ing"
a painting, it is
because they want meaning and this painting (or so they
think) does not give them any.
Twombly
squarely tackles the problem, if only in this, that
most of his paintings bear titles. By the very fact that they
have a title, they proffer the bait ofa meaning to mankind,
which is thirsting for one. For ill classical painting the caption
of a picture (this thin line of words which runs at the bottom
of the work and on which the visitors of a museum first hurl
themselves)
clearly expressed what the picture represented;
analogy ill the picture was reduplicated
by analogy in the
title: the signification was supposed to be exhaustive and the
figuration exhausted. Now it is not possible, when one sees a
painting by Twombly bearing a title, not to have the embryonic reflex of looking for analogy. The Italians (p. 36)?
S(lbara? Where are the Italians? Where is ti,e Sahara?
Let's look for them. Of course, we find nothing. Or at least
-and here begins Twombly's art-what
we find-namely
the painting itself, the Event, in its splendor and enigmatic
quality-is
ambiguous: nothing "represents" the Italians,
the Sahara, there is no analogical figure of these referents;
and yet, we vaguely feel, there is nothing, in these paintings,
which contradicts
a certain natural idea of the Sahara, the
Italians. In other words, the spectator has an intimation of
another logic (his way of looking is beginning to operate
transformations):
although it is very obscure, the painting
has a proper solution, what happens in it conforms to a telos,
a certa in end.
This end is not found immediately.
At first stage, the title
so to speak bars the access to the painting because by its

(rien d'etrange, rien de surrealistc), 11 entrainc sur Line route


anaJogique, qui apparait rres vire barree. Les titres de TW0I11-

bly ont une fonction labyrinthique: ayant parcouru l'idee


qu'ils lancent, on est oblige de revenir en arriere pour repartir ailleurs, Cependant, quelque chose reste, de leur
fantome, et impregne la toile. Ils constituent le moment
negatif de toute initiation. Cet art Ia formule rare, 3 Ia fois
tres intellectuel et tres sensible, fait sans cesse l'epreuve de

la negativite,

a Ia fa~on de ces mystiques

qu'on appelle

"apophatiques" (negatives), car elles imposent de parcourir


tout ce qui n'est pas, afin de percevoir dans ce creux une
lueur qui vacille, mais aussi rayonne, parce qu.'elle tie mcut pas.
Ce que produisent les toiles de Twombly (leur telol) est
tres simple: c'est un "eflet", Ce mot clair lei s'entendre dans
Ie sens tres technique qu'il a eu dans les eccles litteraires
francaises de la fin du XIXcme siecle, du Parnasse au Sym
L' " ettet
a: " est une ImpreSSIOngenera
.
.
"I
' , par
e suggeree
b oIisme.
Ie poeme-s-impression eminernment sensuelle et Ie plus
souvent visuelle. Ceci est banal. Mais Ie propre de l'effet,
c'esr que sa generaljte ne peut ctre vraiment decomposee: on
ne peut le reduire
une addition de details localisables.
Theophile Gautier a ecrit un poeme, "Symphonie en blanc
majeur", dont taus les vel'S concourent, d'une facon la fois
insistante et diffuse, l'installation d'une couleur, Ie blanc,
quj s'imprime en no us, independamment des objets qui la
supportent. De meme, Paul Valery, dans sa periode symboliste, a eerie deux sonnets, intitult~s tous deux "Feerie",
dont I'effet est une certaine couleur; mais COtlll11C, du Parnasse
au Symbolisme, la sensibilite s'est raffinee (sous I'influence,
au reste, des peintres), cctte couleur ne peut etre dite d'ul1
nOI11, com me c'etait Ie cas pour Ie blanc de Gautier); sans
doute c'est I'argent! qui domine, mais cette teinte est prise
dans d'autres sensations qui la diversifient et la renforcent:
luminosite, transparence, legerete, acuite brusque, froideur:
paleur lunaire, soie des plumes, eclat du diamant, irisation de
la nacre. L'effet n'est done pas un "true" rhetorique: c'est
une veritable categoric de la sensation, definje par ce paradoxe: unite indecomposable de l'impression (du "message")
er complexite des causes, des elements: la generalite n'est pas
mysterieuse (entierement confiee au pouvoir de l'artiste),
mais elle est cependant: irrfdllctible. C'est un peu une autre
Iogique, une sorte de defi porte par Ie poi:te (et Ie peintre)

precision, its intelligibility, its classicism (nothing strange or


surrealist about it), it carries us on the analogical road, which
very quickly turns out to be blocked. Twombly's
titles have
the function of a maze: having followed the idea which they
suggest, we have to retrace our steps and start in another
direction. Something remains, however, their ghosts, which
pervade the painting. They constitute the negative moment
which is found in all initiations. This is art according to a rare
formula, at once very intellectual and very sensitive, which
constantly confronts negativity in the manner of those schools
of mysticism called "apophatic" (negative) because they
teach one to examine all that which is not-so
as to perceive,
in this absence, a faint light, flickering but also radiant

because it doesnot lie.


What Twombly's paintings produce (their telOI) is very
simple: it is an "effect." This word must here be understood
in the strictly technical sense which it had in the French
literary schools of the late nineteenth century, from the
Parnasse to Symbolism. An "effect" is a general impression
suggested by the poem, an impression which is sensuous, and
most often visual. This is well known. But what is specific to
the effect is that its general character cannot really be decomposed; it cannot be reduced to a sum of localized details.
Theophile Gautier wrote a poem, "Symphonie en blanc
majeur," all the l;nes of which contribute, ..in a way which ;s
at once insistent and clifluse, to establishing a color, white,
which imprints itself on us independently of the objects which
are its supports. In the same way Paul Valery, during his
Symbolist period, wrote two sonnets, both entitled "Feerie,"
the effect of which is a certain color. But as sensibility had
become refined between the Parnassian and the Symbolist
periods (under the influence of painters, ,in f.1ct) we cannot
name it as we did in the case of Gautier's white. It probably
consists mostly of a Iilver)' tone, but this hue is caught in other
sensations which diversify and reinforce it: luminosity,
transparence, lightness, sudden sharpness, coldness; moonlight pallor, silken feathers, diamond brightness,
mother-ofpearl iridescence. An effect is therefore not a rhetorical trick:
it is a veritable category of sensations, which is defined by
this paradox: the unbreakable unity of the impression (of the
"message") and the complexity of its causes or clements. The
generality is not myster.ious, that is, attributed to the power
of the artist, bu tit is nevertheless irreducible. It is in a way
another logic, a kind of challenge, on the part of the poet

15

aux fegles aristoteliciennes

de la structure.

Bien que beaucoup d'elernenrs separent Twombly du


Symbolisme francais (l'art, I'histoire, la nationalite),
quelque
chose les rapproche: une certaine forme de culture. Cette
culture est classique: non seulement Twombly se refere
direcrernent
des faits mythologigues
transmis par la litterature grecque ou larine, mais encore les "auteurs" (auctores veut
dire: les garants) qu'il introduit dans sa peinture sont ou des
poetes hurnanistes (Valery, Keats) au des peintres nourris
d'antiquire (Poussin, Raphael). Une chaine unique, sans
cesse figuf(~e, conduit des dieux grecs l'artiste modernechaine dont les maillons sont Ovide et Poussin. Une sorte de
triangle d'or joint les antiques, les poeres et Ie peintre. II est
significatif qu'unc toile de Twombly soit dediee a Valery, et
plus encore peut-etre-c-parce que cette rencontre s'est faite
sans doute
I'insu de Twombly-gu'une
toile de ce peintre
er un poerne de eet ecrivain portent lc meme titre: Naissance
de Vellus (p, 79); et ces deux cruvres ant le merne "effet": de
surgisscment maritime, Cette convergence, ici exernpiaire,
donne peut-erre la clef de I' "effet" Twombly. II me semble
que cet effet, constant dans toutes les toiles de Twombly,
meme celles qui ant precede son installation en Italie (car,
comrne dit encoreValery,
il arrive que l'avenir soit cause du
passe) est celui, tres general, que delivrerair, dans toutes ses
dimensions possililes, le mot "Mediterrance".
La Mediter
ranee est un enorme complexe de souvenirs er de sensations:
des langues, la gfecque et la [at ine, prescnres dans Ies titres
de Twombly, une culturc, historigue, mythologique, poetigue,
toute cctte vie des formes, des couleurs et des lumieres qui
se passe
la frontiere des lieux terrestres et de la paline
marine. L'art inimitable de T\vombly est d'avoir inlpose
l'effet-MecLterranee a partir d'un materiau (griffures, salissures, trainees, peu de couleur, aucune forme academique) quj
n'a aucun rapport analogique avec Ie grand rayonnement
mediterraneen.

Je connais I'lie dc Procida, en face de Naples, oll Twombly


a vecu. rai passe quelques jours dans l'antique maison oll
habita l'heroine de Lamartine, Graziella. La se rejoignent
calmemcnr la lumiere, Ie ciel, la terre, quelques traits de
rocher, un arc de voute. C'est Virgile et cJest une to.ile de
Twombly: pas une, au fond, ou il n'y ait ce vide du ciel de
'
I,cau et c~s lies, I"
.egeres marques terrestres (une barque, un
promontoHe) gw y f10ttent (apparellt rori IIantes): Ie bleu du
ciel, Ie gris de la mer, Ie rose de l'aurore.
16

(and the painter) to the Aristotelian


rules of the structure.
Although
many things separate Twombly from Symbolism
(their art, their time, their nationality), they have something
in common: a certain form of culture. This culture is classical:
not only does Twombly directly allude to mythological facts
which have been transmitted by Greek or Latin literature,
but also the "authors" (auctores mean: the guarantors) whom
he introduces into his painting are either humanist poets
(Valery, Keats) or painters nurtured on antiquity (Poussin,
Raphael). A single chain, constantly evoked, leads from the
Greek gods to the modern artist, a chain whose links are Ovid
and Poussin. A kind of golden triangle unites the ancients,
the poets and the painter. It is significant that one of Twombly's paintings
is dedicated to Valery, and perhaps even more
-because
this coincidence probably occurred unbeknownst
to Twombly-that
a picture by this painter and a poem by
this writer bear the same name: Birth of I/enus (p. 79). And
these two works have the same "eHece': that of arising from
the sea. This convergence, which is here exemplary, perhaps
gives us the key to the "Twombly
effect." It seems to me
that this effect, which is constant in all of Twombly's paintings, even those which were painted prior to his settling in
Italy (since, as Valery also said, it sometimes happens that
the future is the cause of the past), is the very general effect
which can be released, in all its possible dimensions, by the
word "Mediterranean." The Mediterranean is an enormous
complex of memories and sensations: certain languages (Greek
and Latin) which are present in Twombly's titles, a historical,
mythological,
poetic culture, this whole life of forms, colors
and light which occurs at the fiontier of the terrestrial landscape and the plains of the sea. The inimitable art of Twombly
consists in having imposed the Mediterranean effect while
starting from materials (scratches, smudges, smears, little
color, no academic forms) which have no analogy with the
great Mediterranean radiance.
I know the island of Procida, in the Bay of Naples, where
Twombly has lived. I have spent a few days in the ancient
house where Graziella, Lamartine's heroine, spent her days.
There, calmly united, are the light, the sky, the earth, the accent of a rock, an arch. It is Virgil and ir is a Twombly painting: there is none, in fact, where we don't find this void of the
sky, of water, and those very light marks indicating the earth
(a boat, a prol11on tory) which fioa t in them (apparent rari tlantef):
the blue of the sky, the gray of the sea, the pink of sunrise.

IV
Qt1'est-ce qui se passe sur une toile de Twombly? Une sorte
d'eff
c s : terraneen.
'C et e fl'et, cepen dant, 11 'est pas "I'"
erret meci
ge e
dans la pompe, Ie serieux, Ie drape des rruvres humanistes
(meme les poemes d'un esprit aussi intelligent que Valery
restent prisonniers d'une sorte de deccnce superieure), Dans
l'evenemenr, Twombly introduit tres souvenr line surprise
(apodcrton). Cette surprise prend l'apparence d'une incongruite,

d'une derision, d'une deflation, comme si I'enflure hurnaniste


ttait brusquement degOllfh~e.Dans l'ode to Ps}che (dessin,
P: 78), un discret etalonnage, dans un coin, vient "casser" la
solennite du titre, noble s'il en fur. Dans 01)'1I1pi. (p. 29), il Y
a en quelques endroits un motif crayonne "maladroiteruenr",
comme ceux que produisent les enfants lorsqu'ils veulent
dessiner des papillons, Du point de vue du "style", valeur
haute qui suscita Ie respect de taus les Classiques, quai de plus
eloigne du Voile d'Orphee que ces quelques lignes entantines
d'arpenteur apprenti (voir pp. 58-59)1 Dans Unutled (1969, P:

62), quel gris! Qge c'esr beau! Deux minces traits blancs sont
suspendus de guingois (toujours le Rarus, Ie Ma japonais); ce
pourrait etre tres Zen; rnais deux chiflres it peine lisibles
dansent au-des sus des deux traits et renvoient la noblesse de

ce gris la tres legerc derision d'une feuille de calcul.


A mains que ... ce IlC soit precisement par ces surprises que
les toiles de Twombly

ne retrouvent

I'esprit Zen

Ie plus pur.

l! existe en effet dans I'attitude Zen une experience, l'echerchee sans methode l'ationnelle, qui a beaucoup d'importance:
c'est Ie satori. On traduit ce mot tres i11lparfaitement (a
cause de notre tradition chretienne) par "illumination";
parfois, un peu mieux, par "eveil"; il s'agit sans doute, pour
autant que des profanes comme nOllS peuvent en avail' une
idee, d'une sorte de secousse mcntale qui permet d'acceder,
hors de toutes les voies intellectuelles connues, a la "verite"
bouddhiste: verite vide, decollnectee des formes et des
causalites. L'important pour nous est que Ie satori Zen est
recherche "aide de techniques sUTprenantes: non seulement
irrationnelles, mais aussi et surtout incongrues, defiant Ie
serieux que naus attachans aux e>"l'eriences religieuses: c'est
tantot une reponse "sans queue oi tete" apportee une haute
question metaphysique, tan tot un geste surprenant, qui
vient casser Ia solennitc d'un rite (tel ce predicateur Zen qui,
au milieu d'un sermon, s'arreta, se dechaussa, mit sa savate sur

sa tete et quitta

la salle). De telles incongruites,

essentielle-

ment irrespectueuses, ant chance d'ebranler I'esprit de serieux

IV
What happens in a painting by Twombly?

A kind of Medi-

terranean effect. This effect, however, is not "frozen" in the


pomp, the seriousness, the decorum of humanist works (even
poems as intelligently
conceived as those of Valery remain
imprisoned in a kind of superior modesty)' Often, Twombly

introduces into the event a Jt,trprise (apodeston).

This surprise

takes the appearance of incongruity, derision, deflation, as jf


the humanist turgescence was suddenly pricked. In the ode

to Psyche (a drawing, P: 78), a discreet tape measure, in a


corner, "breaks" the solemnity of the title, a noble title if
ever there was one. Iu Olympia (p. 29), there are here and
there motifs which are "clumsily" sketched, resembling those
produced by children when they want to draw butterflies.
From the point of view of "style," an elevated value which
has earned the respect of all the classical wri ters, what is 1110re
remote from the Veil of Orpheus than these few lines worthy
of an apprentice surveyor (see pp. 58-59)? In Uutuled (1969,
P: 62), what a beautiful gray! Two thin white lines are suspended askew (this is still the Roms, the Japanese Mo); this
could be very Zen-like; but two arithmetical
figures, hardly
legible, are wavering above the two Lines and connect the
nobility of this gray to the faint derision of being the support
of a computation.
Unless ... it is precisely through such surprises that
Twombly's pictures recover the spirit of purest Zen. For

there exists, in the Zen attitude, a certain experience, which


is not sough t through a rational method, and which is very
important: the satori. This word is very imperfectly trans-

lated (because of our Christian tradition) as "illumination";


sometimes, a little better, as "awakening." It is probably, as
far as laymen like us can imagine, a kind of mental jolt which
allows one to gain access, beyond all the known intellectual

ways, to the Buddhist "truth": a vacant truth, unconnected


with all kinds of form or causality. Wbat matters for us is tbat
the Zen satOl'i is sought through startling techniques: not

only irrational, but also and above all incongruous, funning


counter to the seriousness with which we consider religious
experience. They can consist of;) nonsensical answer given
to some elevated metaphysical question, or of a surprising
gesture, which jars with the solemnity ofa ritual (as in the
case of the Zen preacher who, in the middle of a sermon,
stopped, took off his sandal, put it on his head and left the
room). Such incongruities,
which essentially lack respect,

17

qui prete souvent son masque


la bonne co.oscien.ce. de nos
habitudes mentales. Hors de toute perspeetlve rehgleuse
(bien evidemment), certaines toiles de Twombly contiennent
de ces impertinences, de ces secousses, de ces menus satori.
II faut mettre au rang des surprises suscitees par Twombly
routes les interventions d'ecri ture dans Ie champ de la toile:
chaque fois que Twombly produit un graphisme, il y a
secousse, ebranlemenr du naturel de la peinture. Ces interventions sont de trois sortes (disons-le pour simplifier). II y a
d'abord les marques d'etalonnage,
les chiflres, les menus
algorithmes, tout ce qui produit une contradiction entre
i'inutilite souveraine de Ia peinture et les signes utilitaires
du
ca1cul. II y a ensuire les toiles ou le seul evenemenr est un
mot manuscrit, II a enfin, extensive
ces deux types d'intervention, la "ma!adresse" constan te de la main; la lettre,
chez Twombly, est Ie contraire meme d'une lettrine au d'un
typogramme; elle est faite, semble-t-il, sans application; et
pourtarit elle n'est pas vraiment enfantine, car i'enfant
s'applique, appuie, arrondit, tire la langue; il travail le dur
pour rejoindre Ie code des adultes; Twombly s'en eloigne, il
deserre, il traine; sa main semble entrer en levitation; on
dirait que Ie mot a ete ecrir du bout des doigts, non par
degoQt ou par ennui, mais par une sorte de fantaisie qui vient
decevoir ce qu'on attend de Ia "belle main" d'un peintre:
c'est ainsi qu'on appelait au
siecle Ie copiste qui avait
une belle ecriture. Et qui pourrait eCl'ire mieux qu'un peintre?
Cette "maladresse" de I'ecriture (cependant inimitable:
essayez de I)imiter) a certainement chez Twombly une fonction plastique. Mais ici, 011 I'on ne parle pas de Twombly
selon Ie langage de la critique d'art, on insistera sur sa fonction critique. Par Ie biais de son graphisme, Twombly jntroduit
presque toujours une contradiction dans sa toile: Ie "pauvre",
I"
.
e ma Id'''I''
a rOlt , e gauc h""
e , reJOlgnant I"
e Rare," aglssent

xvnee-

comme des forces quj brisent la tendance de la culture


c1assique a faire de I'antiguite une reserve de formes decoratives: la purete aponinienne de la n~ference grecque, sensible
dans la luminosite de la toile, la paix aurorale de son espace
'''(p' U1sque tel est Ie mot du satari) par I'in- ,
sont " secouees
gratitude des graphismcs. La toile semble mener une action
Contre la culture, dont elle abandonne Ie discours emphatique

18

have a chance of unsettling the dogmatic seriousness which


often lends a mask to the clear conscience presiding over our
mental habi ts. From a non-religious point of view (obviously),
some paintings by Twombly contain such impertinences,
such shocks, such minute satori.
We must count as such surprises all the interventions of.
writing in the field of the canvas: any time Twombly uses a
graphic sign, there is a jolt, an unsettling of the naturalness of
painting. Such interventions are of three kinds (as we shall
say for simplicity's sake). First there are the marks of measurement, the figures, the tiny algorithms,
all the things which
produce a contradiction
between the sovereign uselessness of
painting and the utilitarian signs of computing. Then there are
pain tings where the only event .is a handwritten word. Finally
there is, occurring in both types ofintervention,
the constant
"clumsiness"
of the hand. The letter, in Twombly, is the
very opposite of an ornamental or printed letter; it is drawn,
it seems, without care; and yet, it is not really childlike for
the child tries diligently, presses hard on the paper, rounds
off the corners, puts out his tongue in his efforts. He works
hard in order to catch up with the code of adults, and Twombly
gets away from it; he-spaces things out, he lets them trail
behind; it looks as if his hand was levirating, the word looks
as if it had been written with the fingertips, not out of disgust or boredom, but in virtue of a fancy which disappoints
what is expected from the "fine band" of a painter: this
phrase was used, in the se,'enteenth
century, about the copyist who had a fine handwriting.
And who could write better
than a painter?
This "clumsiness" of the writing (which is, however,
inimitable:
try to imitate it) certainly has a plastic function
in Twombly.
But here, where we don't speak about him in
the language of art criticism, we shall stress its critical function. By means of his use of wrj tten elements, Twombly
almost always introduces a contradiction in his painting;
a e to " rare" sparseness, "" c IUIl1SlllCSS,
.
"" aw k--war d ness, "ddd
ness," act as forces which quash the tendency, which one
finds jn classical culture, to turn antjquity into a depository
of decora6ve
forms; the Apollonjan purjty of the reference to
Greece, whjch is felt in the lumjnosity
ofthe painting, the
dawlllike peace of its spaciousness, are "shaken" (since this
is the word used about sarori) by the repulsive use of written
elements. It ,is as if the painting ,vas conducting a fight
against cui ture, of which it jettisons
the magniloquent dis-

_---------------------------------------r'
et ne laisse filtrer que la beaute. On a dit qu'au contraire de
cclui de Paul Klee, I'art de Twombly ne com porte aucune
agressivite. C'est vrai si l'on conceit l'agressivire dans un sens
occidental, cornme I'expression excitee d'un corps contraint
qui explose, L'art de Twombly est un art de Ia secousse, plus
que de Ia violence, et il se trouve sou vent que la secousse est
plus subversive que Ia violence: c'est precisernent la lecon de
certains modes orientaux de condui te et de pensee,

course and retains only the beauty. It has been said that unlike the art of Paul Klee, that of Twombly contains no
aggression. This is true if we conceive aggression in the
Western way, as the excited expression of a constrained body
which explodes. Twombly's art is an art of the jolt more than
an art of violence, and it often happens that a jolt is more
subversive than violence: such, precisely, is the lesson of
some Eastern modes of behavior and thought.
V

Drama, en grec, est erymologiquement attache a l'idee de


"faire". Drama, c'esr a 1a fois ce qui se fait et ce qui se joue
sur 1atoile: un "drame", cui, pourquoi pas? Pour rna part, je
vois dans I'osuvre de Twombly deux actions, au une action
deux degres.
L'action du premier type consiste en une sorte de mise en
scene de la culture. Ce qui se passe, ce sont des "hisroires"
qui viennent du savoir, et, comrne on l'a dit, du savoir

classique: cinq jours de Bacchanalia, la naissance de Venus,


les Ides de Mars, trois dialogues de Platon, une bataille, etc.
Ces actions historiqucs ne sont pas representees, e1les sont
evoquees, par la puissance du Nom. En sornme, ce qui est
rcpresente, c'est la culture elle-rneme, OU, comme on dit
maintenant, I'inter-texte, qui est cette circulation des textes

anterieurs (au contemporains) dans la tete (ou la main) de

representation est tout


fait explicite lorsque
Twombly prend des rruvres passees (et consacrees COl11l11C
hautcmenr culturelles) et les met "en abyme" dans certaines
de ses toiles: d'abord dans des titres (Tbe Scbool of Atbens, de
Raphael; voir P: 44), puis dans des figurines, au reste mal
reconnaissables, placees dans un coin, comme des images dont
l'artiste. Cette

importe la reference, non Ie contenu (Leonardo, Poussin).


Dans la peinture c1assique, eccequi se passe" est Ie "sujet"
de la toile; ce sujet est souvent anecdotique
(Judith egorgeant
Holopherne), mais dans Ies toiles de Twombly, le "sujet" est
un concept: c'est Ie texte classique "en soi" -concept, il est
vrai etrange, puisqu'il est desirable, objet d'amour, peut-erre
de nostalgie.
NOllS avons en fran~ais une ambiguite precieuse de vocabulaire: Ie <Csujet"d'une Cfuvreest tant6t son "objet" (ce doot
elle parle, ce qu'elle propose la reflexion, la quaestio de
I'ancienne rhewrique), tan tot l'etre humain qui s'y met en
scene, qui y figure comllle auteur implicite de ce qui est rut
(ou peint). Chez Twombly, Ie CCsujet",c'est, bien sur, ce

Drama, in Greek, is etymologically linked to the idea of


"doing." Drama denotes at the same time what is being done
and what is being performed (with something at stake) on
the canvas: a "drama," yes, why not? For myself, I see in
Twombly's work two actions, or an action in two stages.
The first type of action consists in a kind of representation
of culture. What happens is stories, and, as we saw, stories
from classical culture: five days of Bacchanalia, the birth of
Venus, the Ides of March, three dialogues of Plato, a battle,
etc. These historical actions are not depicted; they are evoked
through the power of the Name. What is represented, in fact,
is culture itself, Of, as we now say, the inter-text, which is
this circulation of earlier (or contemporary)
texts in the head
(or the hand) of the artist. This representation
is quite explicit when Twombly takes existing works (works which are
recognized as supreme examples of culture) and places them
"en abyme," that is, as the symbolic core in some of his
paintings; first, in some titles (Tbe School of Atbens, by Raphael;
see p. 44), then in some silhouettes, difficult to recognize,
moreover, which he puts in a corner like images important
as references, and not in virtue of their content (the reference
being Leonardo or Poussin). In classical painting, "what is
happening" is the "subject" of the pain ting, a subject which
is often anecdotal (Judith slaying Holophernes);
but in
Twombly's paintings, the "subject" is a concept: it is the
classical text "in itself"-a
strange concept, it is true, since
it is an object of desire, of love, and perhaps of nostalgia.
There is in French a useful lexical ambiguity:
the "subject"
of a \vork is sometimes its "object" (what it is talking about,
the topic it offers to our reflections, the quaestio of ancient
rhetoric), sometimes the human being who produces himself
through it, who figures in it as the implicit author of what
is said (or painted). In Twombly, the "subject" is of course
what the painting is talking about; but as this subject-object

r9

donr la toile parlc, rnais comme ce sujct-objet n'est qu'une


allusion (ecrite), route la charge du drama passe a celui qui la
produit: Ie sujet, c'esr Twombly lui-mente. Le voyage du
"sujet", cependanr, ne s'arrere pas Ia: paree que !'art de
Twombly semble comporter peu de savoir technique (ce

,
biren sur,
" gu une apparence ) ) Ie " sUJct
. "d e Ia roil
' t
nest,
01 C, Ces
aussi celui qui 1a regarde: VOllS, moi, La "simplicite'
de
Twombly (ce que j'ai analyse sous le nom de "Rare" ou de
"Maladroit")
appelle, attire Ie spectateur: il veut rejoindre
la toile, non pour la consornrner esthetiquement,
mais pour
duire
?
(I"
d
.
")'
I a pro urrc a son tour are-pro
uire ,S essayer a, une
facture dont 101 nudite er la gaucherie lui procurent une
incroyable (et bien fausse) illusion de facilite.
II faur peut-etre preciser que les sujets qui regardent
la
toile sont divers, et que, de ces types de sujets, depend Ie

discours qu'ils tienncnt (inrerieuremcnt)

devant l'objet

regarde (un (Csujet"-c'est ce que la modernite nous a enseigne-n'est jamais consritue que par son langage); narurellement, tous ces sujets peuvent parler, si l'on peut dire, en
meme temps devant une toile de Twombly (soit dit en
passant, I'estherique, C0111111e
discipline, pourrait etre cette
science qui etudie, non l'oeuvre en soi, mais l'CEuvre teIle que

Ie spectateuf,
typologie

au Ie lecreur, la fait parler en lui-mt::tne: une

des discours, en quelque

sorte). II y a done plusieurs

sujers qui regardent Twombly eet Ie murmurent


chacun dans sa tete).
II yale

sujet de 1a culture,

a voix

celui qui sait comment

basse,

est nee

Venus, qui sont POllssinau Valery; ce sujet est disert, il peut


parler d'abondance. II yale sujet de la specialite, ce1ui qui
connait bien l'histoire de la peinture et sait discourir sur la
place qu'y occupe Twombly. II yale sujet du plaisir, celui

gui se rejouir devant la toile, ressent 3 la decollvrir une sorte


de jubilation,

qu'au reste il ne sait pas bien dire; ce sujet est

done muet; il ne pourrait que s'eerier: "Comme c'est beau!"


et Ie repeter: c'est 13 Fun des petits tourments du lanO"aae:
on ne peut jamais expliquer pOUlquoi I'on trouve telle" chose
belle; Ie plaisir engendre une certaine paresse de parole, et si
l'on v~u~parler d'une CEuvre,il faut substituer 3 l'expression
de la Jowssance des discours detournes, plus ration nels-avec
I'espoir que Ie lecteur y sentira Ie bonheur procure par les
toIles dont on parle. Un quatrieme sujet, c'est celui de la
memoire. Sur une toile de Twombly,
telle tache m'apparalt

d'abord hative, mal formee, inconsequente: je ne la COI11prends pas; mais cctte tache travaille en moi, a 111011 insu; Ia
20

is only a written allusion, the whole weight or the drama falls


back again on the person who is producing it: the subject is
Twombly
himself. This circuit of the "subject" does not
stop there, however: because Twombly's art seems to include
little technical know-how (this is of course only an appearance), the "subject" of the painting is also the personwho is
looking at it: you and me. The "simplicity" or Twombly
(what I have analyzed under the name or "Rareness" or

"Clumsiness") calls, attracts the spectator: he wants to be


reunited
to the picture, not to consume it aesthetically, but
to produce it in his turn (to "re-produce"
it), to try his haud

at a technique

whose indigence and clumsiness give him an

incredible (and quite misleading) illusion of being easy.


It should be made clear that the subjects who look at the
painting are varied, and that the type or discourse which they
have (inwardly)
before the object they look at depends on
which type of subject they are (a "subject"-and
this is what
modernity
has taught us-is never constituted by anything
but his language). Naturally, all these subjects can talk (so
to speak) at the same time before a picture by Twombly
(incidentally,
aesthetics as a discipline could be that science
which studies not the work .in itself but the work as the
spect:nor or the reader makes it talk within himseIr; a
typology or discourses, so to speak). There are thererore
several subjects who are looking at Twombly (and sortly
speak to him, each one in his head).
There is the subject or cui ture, who knows how Venus
was born, who l'oussin or Valery are; this subject is talkative,
he can talk fluently. There is the subject or specialization,
who knows the history or painting well and can lecture on
Twombly's
place in it. There is the subject of pleasure, who
rejoices in front or the painting, experiences a kind orjubilation while he discovers it, and cannot quite express it. This
subject is thererore mute; he can only exclaim: "How beautirul this is!" and say it again. This is one or the small tortures

of language: once can ne\rer explain why one finds something


beautiful; pleasure generates a kind of laziness or speech, and
ir we want to speak about a work, we have to substitute for
the expression or enjoyment discourses which are indirect,
more rational-hoping
that the reader will reel in them the
happiness given by the paintings or which we speak. There
is a fourth subject, that or memory. In a Twombly picture a
certain touch or color at first appears to me hurried, botched,
inconsistent:
I don't understand it. But this touch or color

toile abandonnee, die revient, se fait souvenir et souvenir


tenace: tout a change, la toile me rend retroactivernent

works in me, unknown

heureux. Au fond, ce que je consomme avec bonheur, c'est


une absence: proposition nullement paradoxale, si I'on songe
que Mallarme en a fait Ie principe meme de la poesie: "]e dis:

everything has changed, the picture makes me happy retrospectively. In fact, what I consume with pleasure is absence:
a statement which is not paradoxical if we remember that
Mallarrne has made it the very principle of poetry: "I say: a

une fleur et ...

rnusicalernent se leve, idee meme et suave,

l'absente de taus bouquets."


Le cinquieme sujet est celui de la production: celui qui a
envie de re-produire la toile. Ainsi, ce marin 31 decernbre
1978, il fait encore nuit, il pleut, tout est silencieux lorsque
je me rernets , rna table de travail. Je regarde Herodiade

(1960), et je n'ai vraiment rien a en dire, sinon la rneme


platitude: que ,a me plait. Mais tout d'un coup surgit quelque

chose de nouveau, un desir: Ie desir de faire fa meme chore:


d'aller a une autre table de travail (non plus celie de l'ecriture),
de prendre des couleurs et de peindre, tracer. Au fond, la
question de la peinture, c'est: "Est-ce que vous avez envie de
faire du Twombly?"
Com me sujet de la production, le spectateur de la toile va

alors explorer sa propre impuissance-s-et en merne temps,


bien sur, comrne en relief, 1apuissance de I'artiste, Avant
meme d'avoir essaye de tracer quoi que ce soir, je constate

to myself; after I have left the paint-

ing, it comes back, becomes a memory, and a tenacious one:

flower, and musically arises the idea itself, fragrance which is


absent from all bouquets."
The fifth subject is that of production, who feels like reproducing the picture. Thus this morning of 31 December
1978, it is still dark, it is raining, all is silent when I sit down
again at my worktable. I look at Herodiade (1960) and I have
really nothing to say about it except the same platitude: that
I like it. But suddenly there arises something new, a desire:
that of doillg tbe same tbing; of going to another worktable (no

longer that for writing), to choose colors, to paint and draw.


In fact, the question of painting is: "Do you feel like imitating
Twombly?"
As the subject of production,

the spectator

of the painting

is then going to explore his own impotence-and


at the same
time, as it were in relief, the power of the artist. Even before

it se retient d'en }]ouloir trop; sa reussite n'est pas sans parente

having drawn anything, I realize that I shall never be able to


reproduce this background (or what gives me the illusion of
a background): I don't even know how it's done. Here is Age
01 Alexander: oh, this single splash of pink ... ! I could never
make it so light, or rarefy so much the space that surrounds
it. I could not stop filling in, going on, in other words spoiling
all; and my own mistake mades me grasp what wisdom is in
the actions of the artist. He prevents himself from wanting too
much; he succeeds in a way which is not unrelated to the

avec Perotique du Tao: un plaisir intense vient de la retenue.

erotic art of the Tao: intense pleasure comes fr0111 restraint.

Meme probleme

I find the same problem in View (1959, p. 32): I could never


handle the pencil, that is, use it sometimes heavily and sometimes lightly, and I could never even learn it because this art
is guided by no analogical principle, and because the duetus
itself(this movement according to which the medieval copyist drew each stroke of the letter in a direction which was
always the same) is here absolutely free. And what is beyond
reach at the level of the stroke is even more inaccessible at the
level of the surface. In Pallorama (1955, pp. 26-27), the whole
space is crackling in the manner of a television screen before
any image appears on it; now I would not know how to obtain the irregu.larity of the graphic distribution;
for if! strove
to produce a disorderly effect, I would only produce a stupid

que ce fond (ou ce qui me donne I'illusion q'~tre un fond),


jamaisje ne pourrai l'obtenir: je ne sais me me pas comment
il est fait. Voici Age 01 Alexander: oh, cette seule trainee
rose ... ! Je ne saurais jamais la faire aussi legere, rarefier
l'espace autour d'elle; je ne saurais pas m' arriter de rempEr,

de continuer, bref de gdcher; et de la, de

111011

erreur memc,

je saisis tout ce qu'il l' a de sagesse dans I'acte de I'artiste:

dans View (1959; p. 32): je ne saurais jamais


"limier Ie crayon, c'est-a.-dire tantor l'appuyer, tan tot l'alleger,
et je ne pourrais pas meme I'apprendre, parce que cet art

n'est regIe par aucun principe d'analogie, et que Ie ductus


lui-m~me (ce mouvement par lequel Ie copiste du moyen age
conduisait chaque trait de la lertre selon un sens qui etait
toujours Ie m~me) est ici absolument libre. Et ce qui est inac-

cessible au niveau du trait l'est encore plus au niveau de la


sur(1ce. Dans Pallorallia (1955; pp. 26-27), tout I'espace crepite
.
a'I a f:a<;on d" un ecran te'I'eVIsue I avant gu ' aucune Image
ne s , y

depose; or je ne saurais pas obtenir l'irregularite de la repartition graphique; car si je m'appLiquais faire desordonne, je
ne produirais qu'un desorde Mte. Et de
je comprends que

I"

21

l'arr de Twombly est line incessante victoire sur la betise des


traits: faire un trait iJ1telligent, c'esr la i'ultirne difference du
peintre. Et dans bien d'aurres toiles, ce que je rarerais obsrinemerrt, c'cst la dispersion, Ie "jete", Ie decentrenlent des
marques: aucun trait nc semble doue d'une direction intentionnelle, et cependant tout l'ensemble est mysterieusernenr
dirige.

disorder. And from this I understand


that Twombly's art is
an incessant victory over the stupidity of strokes: to draw an
intelligent stroke: here, in the last analysis, is what makes the
painter different. And in many other paintings, what I would
stubbornly
fail to obtain is the impression of "jete," the decentering of the marks: no stroke seems endowed with an intentional direction, and yet the whole is mysteriously oriented.

.
.
de "Rarus " ('"epars, ")
Je reviens
pour fi 1111'. sur cette notion
que je considere un peu comrne la clef de !'art de Twombly*.
Cet art est paradoxa], provoquant meme (s'il n'etait delicat),
en ceci que la concision n'y est pas solenneJle. En general, ce
qui est bref apparait rarnasse: la rarete engendre la densite et
Indensire !'enigme. Chez Twombly, une autre derive se
produit: il y a certes un silence, au, pour etre plus juste, un
gresillenlent tres tenu de la feuille, mais ce fond est luimeme
une puissance positive; inversant le rapport habitue] de la
facture classique, on pourrait dire que le trait, la hachure, la
forme, bref l'evenemcnt graphique est ce qui pernlet
la
feuille au
la toile d'exister, de signifier, de jouir ("L'etre,
dir le Tao, donne des possibilires, c'est par le non-erre qu'on
les utilise"). L'espace traite n'est plus des Iors denombrable,
sans pow' autant cesser d'etre pluriel: n'est-ce pas seIon cette
opposi tion
peine tenable, puisqu'elle exclut it la fois ]e
nombre et l'unite) la dispersion et Ie centre, qu'il faut interpreter la dedicace que Webern adressait
A]ban Berg: "Non.

1!l1t/ta)

sed 1/lultmn".

II y a des peintures excitees, possessives, dogmatiques;


e1les imposent Ie produit, lui donnent ]a tyrannie d'un
fetiche. L)art de Twombly-c'est
13 sa moralite-et
aussi sa
grande singularite historique-ne
vettt rien saisir; il se tient, il
flotte) il derive entre Ie desir----qui, subtilement, anime la
I11ai~-etIa politesse, qui est Ie conge discret donne
route
enVle de capture. Si f'on voulait situer cette moralite, on ne
pourrait aller la chercher que tres loin, hors de la peinture,
hors de l'Occident, hors des siecles historiques,
la limite
meme du sens) et dire, avec Ie Tao To KinaO'
II produit sans s'approprier,
II agi t sans rien attendre,
Son Quvre accomplie, il ne s'y attache pas)
Et puisqu'il ne s'y attache pas,
Son ceuvre restera.

*r ~(

Cy T'llJombl)'." catnlogll~ raisonne des oeuvm Jur papier,


"'I:\onLambert) ed. Multhlpla) Milan, 1979.

22

I shall come back, finally, to this notion of "Rarus" ("scattered"), which I consider the key to Twombly's art.* This
art is paradoxical, and would even be provocative (if it was
not so delicate) because conciseness in it is not solemn. Generally, what is succint appears compact: sparseness begets
density, and density gives birth to enigmas. In Twombly,
another development occurs: to be sure, there is a silence, or,
1110reaccurately,
a very faint sizzling of the surface. But this
ground is itself a positive power; reversing the usualrelationship in classical technique, one might say that strokes, hatching, forms, in short the graphic events, are what allow the
sheet of paper or the canvas to exist, to signify, to be possessed of pleasure ("Being," says the Tao, "gives possibilities,
it is through non-being that one makes use of them"). Space,
when thus treated, is no longer subject to number, while still
being plural: is it not according to this opposition, which is
hardly conceivable since it excludes at once number and
unity, dispersion and centeredness,
that we must interpret
Webern's derucation to Alban Berg: "Non multa) sed 1flultu1ll"?
There are paintings which are excited, possessive, dogmatic; they impose a product, they turn it into a tyrannical
fetish. Twombly's
art-and
in this consist its ethic and its
great historical singularity-doer 'JIotgrasp at tmytbing; it is
situated, it floats and drifts between the desire which, in
subtle fashion, guides the hand, and politeness, which is the
discreet refusal of any captivating
ambition. If we wished to
locate this ethic, we would have to seek very ~lr, outside
painting, outside the West, outside histOly, at the very limit
of meaning, and say, with the Tao Tii King:
He produces without appropriating
anything,
He acts without expecting anything,
His work accomplished, he does not get attached to it,
And since he is not attached
His work will remain.

to it,

1973-1976,

Translated

by Annette Lavers